NEW YORK – A patriotic charge from New Jersey parents and legislators has prevented the state's Board of Education from nixing the Founding Fathers from the school curriculum.
But months of hearings still lie ahead to flesh out the details of precisely what early American history kids in New Jersey will learn, and what will go the educational way of George Washington's chopped-down cherry tree.
The controversy began when the outgoing education commissioner omitted the names of the Founding Fathers in a draft of the state's proposed history standards.
That action was sharply criticized by State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who accused the educational establishment of wanting to "hijack" history. "They've got the tools and the authority, and if we don't call public attention to it they will be successful," he said.
Cardinale drafted a joint resolution, which has similar powers of a bill, stating any teacher who doesn't teach about the founding fathers would lose tenure and employment. State Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio introduced similar legislation.
William L. Librera, who became commissioner in January, reversed the board's earlier action, and in doing so clearly stated his priorities.
"The administration is irrevocably committed to ensuring that our nation's founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and other key historical figures, are a clear part of this state's social studies curriculum standards," he said in a news release.
The issue is not unique to New Jersey. During the 1960s, history textbooks in Virginia had 10 times more coverage of George Washington than today's texts, according to James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, the founding father's estate.
"It's shameful how little we teach our children about Washington and other founding fathers," he said.
Rees has sent out George Washington "kits," which contain learning material, to classrooms in 42 states. "The good news is the teachers are using them," he said. "It's not that they don't want to teach about this, they just don't have the materials."
Studies have repeatedly shown that students across the country have forgotten or never learned even the most basic lessons of American history. For example, only 23 percent of university students in one survey correctly identified James Madison as the father of the Constitution.
As for Jersey, Cardinale and others promised vigilance in keeping up educational standards. "If we do not pass on the values of the founders to our converters we are in dangers of losing the unique democracy that we have in America."
The Department of Education will hold a series of 30 public hearings over the next few months to discuss the curriculum, and will make its recommendations by early summer.